America’s newspapers are vanishing, Illinois losing more than most

(Illinois News Network) — When a newspaper closes or stops providing local content, it’s bad news for the local community, according to an updated report.

Since 2004, hundreds of local newspapers have closed up shop. The author of a report on this trend said areas without a local paper suffer in a variety of ways.

A study by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Media at the University of North Carolina says newspapers have shuttered at a high rate since 2004, many of which happened shortly after the recession in 2008.

“In total, the United States has lost almost 1,800 papers since 2004, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies,” the report found. “Roughly half of the remaining 7,112 papers in the country – 1,283 dailies and 5,829 weeklies – are located in small and rural communities. The vast majority – around 5,500 – have circulations under 15,000.”

Illinois lost 157 weekly papers since 2004, most located in suburban Chicago as many merged with larger daily publications like the Chicago Tribune. This is among the highest number of closings in the country.

“Illinois has lost a tremendous number of newspapers,” said professor Penelope Muse-Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina and author of the study. “Newspapers have been the prime, if not sole, source of grassroots coverage of events that affect the quality of life for people in a community.”

The study was updated recently from an initial publication in 2016.

Behind a lack of revenue to support the local publications are decades of declining readership. According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. daily newspaper readership fell by 11 percent in 2017.

Muse-Abernathy said local newspapers have three main benefits to the area they serve: Coverage and oversight of local government; encouragement of regional economic growth and development; and social cohesion.

Often, smaller newspapers will merge with a larger one nearby and then reduce coverage of the area to cut costs, something the report dubs “ghost papers.” Ghost papers offer little to no local content.

“What you have is a paper that was a standalone newspaper in 2004 that has been gradually merged with a parent, usually a large metro daily,” she said. “They first become zoned editions and then tend to morph into an online-only presence with greatly-diminished resources.”

Studies have shown cities without local investigative journalists are more likely to raise taxes and become more inefficient.

The “news deserts” can be found in urban, rural and suburban areas across the nation, but most have one common trait: Poverty.

The report found that locations that had no local newspaper presence had a poverty rate of 18 percent, higher than the 13 percent average nationwide. Residents were also typically older and less educated.

The reason, according to Stanford University economist James Hamilton, is that residents of low-income areas tend to be overlooked by advertisers because they’re less likely to buy subscriptions and have less access to digital media offerings.